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When you are cold, you shiver to move yourself to raise body temperature. When you are hot, you sweat to cool off the body. You don’t even have to think about doing this. At times, thinking would not change anything as your body often knows what to do for itself. Amazing, isn’t it?

Most people are aware of this. The idea that the body provides solutions to physical issues for itself is “old news” for some. It may seem it ends there.

It doesn’t.

Another way the body cares for itself is with emotions. Most people who come into The Center struggle greatly with their emotions. They are often heard to say emotions are “random” or “absent” or “too much”. They refer to their emotions as “weakness” and have been told the only truly acceptable emotion is happiness. They may go so far as to think something is wrong with them if they are not happy – even during highly stressful times in their lives. Due to this, a great deal of energy is spent in an attempt to minimize, change, or avoid other feelings. This leaves people overwhelmed or numb, or vacillating between both. For others, the feeling of happiness ignites fear and thoughts of “When will the other shoe drop?” Happiness is taken as a signal that things are “getting too good” and “bad is just around the corner”.

Does any of this resonate with you? Is this “just how it is”? If not, then what is the deal with emotions? Why do we have them and what do they tell us?

As it turns out, they have a lot to say! In fact, emotions have quite specific messages. They are not random, and they are no more a weakness than the traffic light on the corner! Knowing what your emotions tell you gives you valuable information about yourself and your environment. Attending to this wisdom can result in solving problems before they grow. Ignoring the messages may lead to the emotional “snowball” effect as they become stronger and stronger as opposed to dissipate.  Numbness, then, is just as much of a problem as overwhelm. The moral of the story? We need to listen to our emotions.

Emotions have meaning messages, physical feelings, and associated action urges. All of these give us information to help us solve life problems. Let us look at anger, fear, sadness, and happiness for examples. (Note: The physical feelings are in italics, the action urge is underlined, and the meaning is in bold italics)

Anger: Anger has a loud voice. When angry, the body feels heat and energy and wants to fight. This can take many forms – yelling, storming out, or physical encounters, to name a few. This makes sense because the messages of anger are injustice and boundary crossing. Think about it. What happened the last time you or someone you know was mistreated or disregarded? Or, maybe when someone tried to force you to do something you don’t want to do? Did you feel the heat? How did you handle it? Did it hone your focus or did you find yourself snippy or frustrated? Think about it. The goal is to use anger as a cue to start the search for fairness and appropriate boundaries.

Fear: Talk about uncomfortable! Fear can present in different ways that often match the specific message. For example, we can experience hyper-focus, rigidity, and a feeling of cold when danger is present. However, if we need to face the unknown, we may experience jitters and scattered thinking. Either way, we tend to want to retreat (flight) from the object of our fear. If we don’t know what it is, we may want to isolate completely or come up with “every possible scenario”. Remember the last time you anticipated a threat to your physical, mental, emotional, or social safety? Maybe a natural disaster, an abusive partner, or finding out friends gossip about you. If you notice fear, you can check to see if any of these types of experiences have happened. Or, perhaps you may be entering a new place in life where you find the unknown. How would you respond?

Do you notice something so far with the action urges of these two emotions? Fight and flight. Where have you heard those words before? Biology class, you say? Why yes!! It’s biology – not character – that is the source of the urge to act in the face of these emotions. Our actions do reflect certain aspects of our character and experience, but the “want to” is understandable. We can make changes in this with our wise mind. Keep reading…

Sadness: The first message of sadness is not usually a surprise: grief and loss. The second message, however, takes some unawares: unfulfillment. We understand that when we experience loss, we feel heavy and lethargic. However, when people talk about unfulfillment, their body usually demonstrates that with feelings of emptiness or hollowness. Whichever the issue, the overall action tends to be in the category of stop– we don’t want to move forward. This makes sense, too! Think about it! If you lost something or if you don’t think your life is full, wouldn’t you want to stop and take inventory? Or, grieve? These are the appropriate responses. Sadness is doing its job if it makes you want to do these things. Don’t fight it.

Happiness: Well, if sadness is grief and unfulfillment, then you got it – happiness is based on gain and fulfilment. You may tend to feel light or satisfied/full and feel ready to go and move forward. Be careful here, though – many messages you hear each day may lead you to believe you need to accumulate more and more, never ending. This, however, goes against fulfilment. As soon as we have too much to pay for with our given amount of income or work level, we become slave to master. Happiness is unlikely to live there long. However, if we have gain to “enough” of “sufficiency”, then we will experience happiness as the current situation allows. Also, a sense of purpose and fulfilment brings mirth, as well.

Do you see how wonderfully your system is wired? The issue comes with the fact they are transient and often can be triggered out of past experience and not current happening. In other words, they do not tend to stick around beyond the stimulus which causes them. This means that the emotional signals we receive are not always accurate to the current situation. (Future additions will address what to do when signals are crossed or false)

Next time you feel a flood of emotions, remember they tell you something. They are your brain and body’s attempt to communicate to your mind and spirit. If you struggle with emotions and want to learn how to find life balance, contact The Center for assistance.

Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-Certified Group Psychotherapist. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center; A Place of Hope, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.